As I pulled out of my friend’s driveway, I felt awful. Why hadn’t I shut down our conversation or changed the subject?
I’d stopped by her house to pick something up, and before I knew it, our discussion turned to a couple we both knew. We’d had similar negative experiences with them. As a result, my friend left the organization they led. I was still there, but I knew it probably wouldn’t be long before I exited too. As hard as I tried to communicate directly with them to improve the situation, change wasn’t coming.
But the commiseration my friend and I shared didn’t feel cathartic. Instead, it felt like gossip.
Gossip by any other name
Gossip, which Dictionary.com defines as “idle talk or rumor, especially about the private or personal affairs of others,” is a normal part of our culture. But have you noticed that when it happens in Christian circles, many of us don’t call gossip what it is?
I think that’s because it’s easier to justify gossip if we label or mask it as something else. Instead of telling ourselves that it’s gossip, we disguise it as things like prayer requests, “just thought you should know” warnings, and venting (which is probably where the commiseration I mentioned fits).
What do these “gossip disguises” look like? And how do you know if, like my friend and me, you’re cloaking gossip as one of them? Let’s look at each a bit closer.
Prayer requests. When we’re itching to talk about someone, sharing what we know in the form of a prayer request seems more spiritual. Asking others to intercede for another person allows us to tell what we know but not sound like we’re gossiping.
We can say things like, “Can you pray for Amy? She’s struggling to make wise decisions in her dating relationships. The last guy she went out with always lied to her, and she seems drawn to other men just like him.” We said a lot about Amy in those three small sentences, and not all of it was necessary. We ventured into gossip by adding information about a past boyfriend and what we perceived to be a lack of wisdom on Amy’s part.
“Just thought you should know” warnings. Most of us understand that it reflects poorly on us if we speak negatively about someone else. Instead, we sometimes disguise our words as a “just thought you should know” warning, attempting to appear helpful. And don’t get me wrong, the intention may often be good.
We might say, “I heard you’re having coffee with Grace on Friday. I just thought you should know that I’ve noticed not all of her behavior aligns with her faith.” We might elaborate a little bit by sharing questionable places she’s gone or people she’s hung out with. Did the person we’re talking to need to know all of that? No. Good intentions or not, we’ve managed to adversely color their perception of Grace before they have a chance to get to know her themselves.
Venting. One of my favorite articles by Suzanne Hadley Gosselin is “Venting and Losing.” It’s a piece that changed how I view venting. Before I read it, I didn’t realize that venting is often gossip in disguise.
Suzanne explains that venting “involves voicing frustrations that are often damaging to a person or a cause. By giving ourselves permission to ‘vent,’ we allow words to pour out unchecked, taking little time to consider whether they’re gossip, slander or just good, old-fashioned complaint.”
So how can venting sound when it is gossip? We might say, “I’m so frustrated with Morgan. The other night, I tried to talk to her about her bad attitude. She blew me off! I think she’s totally prideful right now and doesn’t want to listen to what anyone else thinks.” We’re making assumptions about Morgan and conveying them to someone else as truth.
While gossip, in any form, certainly isn’t sweet, it does seem appropriate to quote Shakespeare here. As the Bard wrote in “Romeo and Juliet,” “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” And gossip, no matter what we call it, is still gossip. So, as followers of Jesus, is it ever OK?
Slamming the door on gossip
I recently heard a sermon from my church’s teaching pastor, Robert Watson, on Jesus’ commendation and correction in Revelation to the church in Pergamum. These Christians had allowed the culture to creep into their day-to-day lives. But Jesus reminded this church that just because something was culturally or socially acceptable didn’t make it OK for them.
The same is true for us today. As Watson admonished, “Not every culturally acceptable door needs to remain opened.” And I believe gossip is one of those doors that need to stay closed.
Scripture is full of warnings about gossip and the importance of guarding our words carefully. Here are just a few:
- “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3)
- “A troublemaker plants seeds of strife; gossip separates the best of friends” (Proverbs 16:28)
- “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends” (Proverbs 17:9)
In Proverbs 18, Solomon spends four verses focusing on what happens when we aren’t careful with what we say. In verse 8, he writes specifically about gossip, saying, “The words of gossip are like choice morsels, they go down to the inmost parts” (Proverbs 18:8). The ESV Study Bible notes that this “explains why gossip is so deadly: people love to hear it and to share it.” But, as the other verses tell us, the consequences of sharing it are always negative.
Our words matter. We’re even told, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). We can choose to keep the gossip door closed and instead wield our words with wisdom, respect, and love for others.
But are there ever exceptions to talking about the personal affairs of others?
Exceptions to the “no gossip” rule
Yes, there are appropriate people and appropriate times to share prayer requests, warnings, and maybe even vent.
For example, if Amy asks you to share her prayer request with others, then it’s OK to talk about it. But keep the prayer request factual and to the point. Don’t offer more than she asks you to, and only share it with those who genuinely care about Amy.
Or, if someone you are close to has a history of picking the wrong friends — and you have a relationship with them where you can speak the truth in love — a warning might be helpful. Make sure your motivation in sharing is for their spiritual, emotional, or physical safety. Your purpose should never be to speak poorly of the person you’re warning against.
And specifically regarding venting, I highly recommend you read Suzanne’s article on it to help you decide when or if it’s appropriate.
Sometimes other people’s private affairs are our private affairs too. In that case, we need to talk through what’s going on with a trusted individual in our lives who can help us process it. We need their perspective. We can’t navigate all our interpersonal issues alone and shouldn’t have to. Just pick your confidants wisely.
How to shut gossip down
If we stick with the idea that these exceptions are few, how do we keep the culturally-accepted door to gossip closed — and do it without being too confrontational? Here are two practical ideas.
- Change the subject. If you’re like me and you try to avoid unnecessary conflict, this is the least confrontational way to shut gossip down. I have a good friend who is a master at this. When I’ve fallen into gossip, she simply discourages the conversation and changes the subject. I’ve quickly learned that she doesn’t gossip, and her example has challenged me to be more careful with my words.
- Say something good about the person being talked about. Several months ago, I found myself in a conversation that turned into negative commentary on someone we all knew. I was shocked because I’d only had good experiences with this person. So instead of curiously asking about their negative opinions, I shared my positive thoughts.
No more gossip girl
It’s been years since I commiserated with my friend. But I still remember it clearly.
While it’s easy to feel regret that I didn’t shut down the conversation or change the subject, I’m choosing not to live in remorse. Instead, I look back at that experience and allow it to inform how I use my words today. Gossip is a door I now do my best to shut tightly.
Copyright 2022 Ashleigh Slater. All rights reserved.